Books listed in chronological order of when I finished them.
Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill (2009)
- I really wanted to like this book as much as Gaitskill’s 1980s collection Bad Behavior. One of my favorite teachers from high school sent this to me during a particularly bleak period in the Seattle winter and it was welcome warmth. But it’s just not nearly as punchy as Bad Behavior, it’s way more sentimental. Gatiskill, in my opinion, was a great female counterpart to writers like Raymond Carver in the ’80s who were working in minimalism. She had a distinctly feminine voice without being weak or trite and without writing about “typical” feminine subjects like child rearing and marriage. Some of the stories in Don’t Cry bordered on trite and Gaitskill has moved on from the ’80s brand of minimalism. Some of the stories are a bit more “experimental” in the way they are told, like “Mirror Ball” in which a man takes a piece of a woman’s soul after a one night stand, Gaitskill tries to tell the story of the irrational feeling of intense rejection after a fling through the woman’s search for her lost “piece.” I had a lot of problems with this story. It was just all sorts of cliche from the fact that this philandering man is a musician to the implication that a man has the thing that this woman needed for completion. And in the way it is written, the reader can tell Gaitskill struggled with it too. It just does not read well, it lacks flow. It reads as if even the author knows how contrived it is. Some of the stylistic choices in the writing of some of these stories did not complement the themes Gaitskill is interested in. Style tricks are great, but only when they can further illuminate ideas. But there are still moments of beauty. “Folk Song” and “The Agonized Face” are both fantastic stories from an aging woman who is learning how to be a feminist and also a mother. I don’t think I will be revisiting this book as often as I have Bad Behavior but maybe it’s just because I am not at a time in my life when I can learn from or appreciate the stories of middle-aged women who are married with children.
Clumsy by Jeffrey Brown (2003)
- I read this in one sitting but was turned off by the art style at first. The drawings are way simplistic and much of the book is a little like soft-core porn. But I loved this graphic novel. The story of a relationship is told in non-linear snippets in such a way that could not be replicated in a traditional novel. As a novel, it would be underwhelming, which is really why I love this book. Graphic novels can do things wholly different from novels or short stories and that is beautiful. The story is almost boring in its honesty/realism at times but it works somehow.
Livability by Jon Raymond (2009)
- I was happy to find a strong Pacific Northwest author in Jon Raymond. The collection could do without “Young Bodies” and “New Shoes,” both stories read as being very self important and much less developed than the others. In “Young Bodies,” the female main character looks in a mirror and Raymond uses that as a transition into discussing her appearance. Come on, really? That trick has almost no place in literature that is not specifically meant for young adults. Hiccups aside, Raymond’s depiction of the Northwest is tender, genuine and accurate. In many of the stories, the selfishness displayed in how some of the characters treat each other is an interesting reflection on the balance between solitude/independence and narcissism.
Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (1992)
- Heart breaking beauty. I read this basically in a single sitting during a mandatory 24 hour period without communicative technology (class project for one of my foundational communication courses). This is a beautiful story about the literal weight of books and memory and about the terror of finding technology has made your profession obsolete and what that does to a person’s humanity. I cried a little upon finishing this.
Radical Love by Fanny Howe (2006)
- A book about gender, loneliness and connection. Fanny Howe’s images are some of the most beautiful and striking I have read in a long time. There were passages that were stuck in my head for literally weeks afterward.Example:
“You are our Solomon but you live in a dry land. I know the warning: ‘Do not arouse, do not stir up love before its own time.’ But where will you be when the flowers appear on the earth and the time of pruning the vines has come, and the fig tree puts forth its figs? Inside at your desk? Staring at lazy women through a crack in the door? … I am treated as a ‘noble savage’ because you sense I am well educated, and there might be some male power behind me. … You resist hearing my interpretations of my own problems because I don’t use your jargon. The Catholic Church gives as much significance to each act as any doctor does. Traumatized by one day in history, generations have sat transfixed by the Cross, unable to get to the other side of it, the resurrection, to forget what happened and move on. It’s a mass trauma that has lasted two thousand years, the crucifixion, and the children of this church are of course riddled with psychoses and interpretations. I understand Catholocism. … This is the most reliable approach to truth that I know. So what you diagnose as narcissism is really just happiness. I am happy as a daughter of Jerusalem. It is my happiness that frightens everyone.”
I think I need to read this book through a second time before I can discuss it intelligently.
How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers (2004)
- I hate the phrase, “tour de force,” (re: The New York Times Book Review blurb on the back of the paperback edition of HWAH) but this is a beautiful, strong collection. I love a short story collection in which I can engage with the text and fervently, passionately hate some of the stories but return to them later on to find their grace and nuance. This is, hands down, better than A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius. There is so much going on here. There is just enough going on here. Eggers identifies so many different ways to be human. Though I would not dare compare Eggers to David Foster Wallace, this was the first short story collection that took my breath away since I first read Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Collections like this that seem to be focused on a central theme or emotion, in the hands of lesser writers, can become redundant and bland but this is beautifully paced (which Eggers said* is in part due to his having a wonderful editor who helped arrange the stories) and varied and speaks to such a variety of human emotions and desires within all of us human-animals.*I had the pleasure of meeting Eggers while I was interning for 826 Seattle. He had breakfast with the volunteers and staff the night after he and Tom Robbins MCed a fundraiser for 826 Seattle. After one of the chapter’s best and brightest members of the youth advisory board brought out a stack of books for Eggers to sign, almost everyone in attendance pulled books out of the fold of their coats. He signed my copy of How We Are Hungry, the inscription reads, “Stay hungry. (Great to know you.)” The parenthetical, I would like to believe, was a jest at my word vomit in greeting him the previous day when Teri Hein introduced me as “intern-extraordinaire.” I shook his hand, grinning, and said, “It’s great to meet you, great to meet you.” I think I also complimented his sweater.
Museum of Accidents by Rachel Zucker
- This year marked a return to reading poetry. But how do I talk about poetry? I don’t know. Pick up a copy of this book and read any of the poems aloud.
Richard Yates by Tao Lin (2010)
- Richard Chiem and I had a longish argument on the phone about the fact that I gave this book four stars on Goodreads and he gave it five and why it would merit either score. Tao Lin does not appear to be interested in the internal life of his characters except in their thoughts about each other. The reader knows them primarily through their external actions and, quite frankly, Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning are assholes and frequently boring. The characters’ thoughts that are revealed are not particularly revelatory. This book is about all things inconsequential and insignificant in our lives. It challenges the idea that a novel has to revolve around a great drama. The New York Times book review of Richard Yates said the book failed because the main characters never face any real consequences for their actions, thus the conflicts had no point. But sometimes, even in real life, people don’t get punished for their misdeeds. This is maybe a book about what happens to people when they don’t have to face retribution. This book challenges the idea of what a novel has to do in terms of plot and theme and American literature needs that right now.
Inferno by Eileen Myles (2010)
- I’m trying to find a professor who will sponsor an independent study on queer literature. I want to use this as one of my case studies on why queer literature as a genre is limiting and misleading/deters potential readers. Yes, this is a book about Eileen Myles coming out. But it’s also about dogs and youth and literature and what it’s like to be a woman in publishing and the experience of living in New York and the language is gorgeous.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)
- Not here. I cannot do this here in this space. Full disclosure: I am still finishing this book, but when I do I will finish something much more substantial about it. I just have to prolong this joy. This is the Great American Novel.